by Richard K Morgan
Murder, intrigue, and digital human freight.
For me, speculative-hardboiled genre melds are a deeply satisfying blend of the familiar and the alien. Hardboiled is an incredibly restrictive, trope-driven genre: there’s the jaded hero, the mean streets, the femme fatales, the plot that tangles together threads of aristocrats and gangsters and conspiracies that are rooted in the apex of society. Speculative fiction--and science fiction in particular-- is all about the alien, the different, the forward-thinking, the utterly mindblowing. And Morgan’s world combines both with an utterly addictive flair.
Eight years after he dies from a gut shot while committing grand larceny, Takeshi Kovacs wakes up in someone else’s body and on someone else’s planet. Originally sentenced to decades of “digital human storage” incarceration, Kovacs is not thrilled to discover that Earth plutocrat Lorenz Bancroft has purchased his parole, re-housed his mind in a new body “sleeve,” and made him an offer he can’t refuse: solve Bancroft’s murder and be rewarded with riches and freedom, or submit to incarceration on the inhospitable and unfamiliar earth. With his elite Envoy training, Kovacs assumes the case won’t be too hard to crack, but all too soon, the complicated web of intrigue sucks him into the gritty underworld where the new forms of life that altered carbon promised have been twisted and subverted in ways not even the jaded Kovacs could have imagined.
Morgan’s world is phenomenally immersive. Bay City (apparently San Francisco and surroundings) is simultaneously familiar and alien, with street vendors luring in pedestrians with mindcasts, autonomous hotels desperately seeking visitors, red light districts promising everything real and unreal, and airborne traffic that practically becomes a parking lot during rush hour. Morgan has a gift for bringing his world to life through detail; for example, while Kovacs tends to use a lot of similes, he often likens the futuristic concepts to ones equally unfamiliar to the reader. His explanations of the similarities serve to bring both sides of the comparison to life for the reader while augmenting his world.
The book itself is action-packed to the gills. Kovacs goes up against mobsters, mad scientists, ritual fighters, angry cops, and even a psychotic zen killer-for-hire. Morgan’s descriptions are so vivid that I was left wincing and cringing during several scenes. There is also a lot of graphic (and in my opinion gratuitous) sex, from the prostitution ring that Kovacs has to infiltrate to his moments of passion with the women he encounters. I also suspect that this book has some of the highest density of profanity of any book I've read. Kovacs is a wry, witty, and sympathetic narrator, and he certainly seeks to be a tarnished knight, yet there’s also something terrifyingly inhuman about his ability to shut off all empathy and compassion. According to Kovacs,
"When they make an Envoy, do you want to know what they do? They burn out every evolved violence limitation instinct in the human psyche. Submission signal recognition, pecking-order dynamics, pack loyalties. It all goes, tuned out a neuron at a time; and they replace it with the conscious will to harm ... that's what an Envoy is.[...] A reassembled human. An artifice."
If a core aspect of humanity is the way we view the people around us, then Kovacs’s description of himself is apt. Throughout the story, Kovacs rages against those who believe they have the right to decide who is important and who is a “necessary sacrifice.” Through Kovacs’ flashbacks, the reader also sees the inhumanity of politics and war, and the ways in which lives become statistics which in turn become costs and profits:
"The only problem they had, as they cruised sharkishly back and forth across the cool marble floor of the court, was in drawing the fine differences between war--mass murder of people wearing a uniform not your own; justifiable loss--mass murder of your own troops, but with substantial gains; and criminal negligence--mass murder of your own troops, without appreciable benefit. I sat in that courtroom for three weeks listening to them dress it like a variety of salads, and with every passing hour the distinctions, which at one point I'd been pretty clear on, grew increasingly vague."
Yet when Kovacs switches on his Envoy mode and divests himself of compassion and empathy to wreak havoc, is he any different?
Kovacs sees the meths as inhuman because they believe they have the right to choose who is important and who is not, and who should be sacrificed and who should be saved. Yet he does precisely the same thing:
"You say you're going to break the law, but no one gets hurt. That's right?"
"No one who matters," I corrected gently.
The only difference is in their definitions of “who matters.”
"What choice should they have made? Not to be born on that particular world, at that particular time?" ...
"I was young and stupid," I said simply. "I was used. I killed for people like you because I knew no better. Then I learned better. What happened at Innenin taught me better. Now I don't kill for anyone but myself, and every time that I take a life, I know the value of it."
But who is Kovacs to decide that value?
Sure, Altered Carbon is a gritty, funny, vivid, breakneck, adrenaline-filled hardboiled escapade, but it’s also a glimpse into a future where death is not the end, where the mind can be torn away from its flesh, and where life must be redefined. Kovacs and his world start with the assumption that the self--one’s humanity, or personality, or soul--can be saved to a disc and decanted into a new body “sleeve.” But as Kovacs is forced to face the repercussions of the myriad ways in which a person can be warped and deconstructed, this easy definition is subtly challenged. How much of ourselves are our memories? Our bodies? In a world where the mind and body are simply altered carbon, what is the value or the meaning of a life?